Sri Ganapati- Tyagaraja Kriti In Dance
Anxious grandparents, parents and relatives were distraught as the child lay in bed. The 4 year old boy suffered an undiagnosed illness. The child was taken to the city from their small village in Thanjavur. Specialists were consulted. Tests and scans revealed nothing. The grandfather, Telugu Pandit of the Saraswathi Mahal Library, Thanjavur, offered a silent prayer.
“O Ganesha, my grandson will wear the mask and dance on the Bhagavata mela stage this year. I promise.”
Soon, the child gradually improved in health. On the sacred Narasimha Jayanti day, the Chaitra full moon rose in the sky. The chorus of bhagavatars began to sing the Ganapati Patra Pravesham dwipada for the Bhagavata Mela natakam ‘Prahlada’. A young boy wearing the mask of Ganesha danced with firm steps, hands held in Kapitha hasta. He looked around, raised his right hand in blessing to the audience. The bhagavatars and spectators raised their joined hands above their heads and thanked Ganesha for His grace and blessings. The grandfather went on the stage with an offering of coconut, fruit and flowers and circled a flaming camphor aarathi around the dancer. It was indeed his young grandson who trained for a week to debut on the bhagavata mela stage. The vow had cured his grandson. Such is the power of Ganesha! The bhagavatas believe that the dancer who wears the mask of Ganesha or Narasimha is temporarily possessed by their divine spirit and will think nothing of prostrating to the human actor!*1
Every classical dance form and theatre in India invariably begins with the homage and salutation to the adorable Ganesha. Every performing artiste who steps on the stage silently says a prayer to the elephant faced god who can remove obstacles and ensure a successful performance.
*1 Bhagavata mela Natakams are performed in 5 villages in Thanjavur on the occasion of Narasimha Jayanti. Like the elephant, this ancient form is also on the list of endangered art forms.
The greatest devotees of Ganesha are probably in Maharashtra where a ten-day festival during Ganesh Chaturthi is one joyous swirl of colour, song and dance. The common people in the villages, the labourers, the masters, the rich and the poor join in tumultuous welcome to the elephant-headed deity. Ganapati Bappa Morya pudcha varshe laukar ya! ‘Our dear Ganapati, return soon next year’ the rhythmic chant rises to a crescendo accompanied bykartals and lezims. The folk theatre form of this State is called Tamasha . It comprises music, dance and drama and invariably begins with an invocation to Ganesha. Folk Theatre, classical dance, and other performing artistes anywhere in India consider Ganesha as a patron of arts who can ensure the success of a performance .
Many years ago, on a family visit to the Bangalore zoo, we were distraught and looked on in horror as a mahout struck an elephant repeatedly on its forehead with a heavy hammer. The memory still haunts me and the pain I felt then is still fresh in my heart. Like the Bengal tiger this magnificent animal deserves to live. The very noble thought of a second gajendra moksham gives one joy and happiness of being able to contribute to such a mammoth cause.
Ganesha and Gaja in Bharata Natyam is the subject of this post. Taking this quite literally, this feature endeavors to sketch a brief understanding of dance, analyzes a dancer’s mind when she composes dance, and a description of an item on Ganesha. This dance in words or word-pictures will hopefully bring out the glory of Ganesha, his various attributes and stories associated with this adorable deity.
Among animals, the elephant is credited with the unique attributes of intelligence and memory. Ganesha symbolizes these basic qualities that are essential in any performing artiste.
How valid is the comparison of Ganesha to the elephant? Is Ganesha a realistic depiction of the animal? How does the dancer adapt the mammoth sized animal on the stage? In the jungle, the elephant forages aggressively for large amounts of vegetation to assuage his hunger. He is not easy to train and is known to revolt against his own trainer mahout. The elephant has great strength and is used for heavy labour in timber yards. The grand finale in animal circuses is the elephant act where they are made to perform and dance on their hind legs. A visit to a temple is incomplete without feeding bananas to the baby elephant at the entrance. An elephant ride is the high point in the itinerary of every tourist in India. The elephant is divine. The elephant is regal. The very sight of the elephant, single, in a herd or a hundred of them aligned in a festive caparisoned row, inspires awe.
The grace and beauty of an elephant’s gait is amazing. The bulky form disappears when he jauntily breaks into a run, ears waving like a maharaja’s pankha. The long trunk sways like a willowy coconut palm in a breeze as he turns his head majestically from side to side. In the classification of women in classical literature, Gajagamini is a woman whose gait is graceful like an elephant.
Can a dancer resist such a challenge from Nature? In dance Ganesha is depicted as an adorable, lovable deity. His benign blessings are sought before a child learns the first steps of dance. Traditionally, Ganesha is invoked to dwell in the wooden stick which the child holds as she strikes her first steps. Every classical dance or theatre performance begins with a prayer to Ganesha to destroy the surrounding negative vibrations which may mar a performance.
On stage the gargantuan form of an elephant is aesthetically depicted as dwarfish and with a pot-belly. His enormous appetite is translated into a deity who loves modakam and fruit. The elephant’s graceful gait is an integral part of every Ganesh vandana in dance.
Aspects of Dance
For those who would like to understand a sophisticated dance form like Bharata Natyam, a few words on the technique would not be out of place.
In Bharata Natyam there are two aspects; nrtta which is pure movement and nritya, the expressive element. The third one called natya uses both these elements to tell a story. Hand gestures, movement of feet, arms and torso, the eyes and in fact, every part of the body is trained to move in coordination according to the basic technique. The face becomes the mirror of the soul, expressing the inner emotions to depict the lyrics. The pure dance movements or adavus are decorative in nature and form patterns around the rhythmic grid of the song. Although they were traditionally not meant for expressing emotions or moods, the modern dancer uses them to enhance the underlying mood. The pure dance sequences are composed keeping in mind the mood of the lyrical statement. For example, if the song is an invocation to Ganesha, the footwork could be flat and heavy with flowing body movements to depict the elephantine grace. The hand gestures or hastas may symbolize Ganesha’s weapons, his fan-like ears or the swaying trunk.
The nritya or abhinaya elucidates the meaning of the lyrics and invariably includes a few anecdotes of Ganesha’s exploits. The underlying mood of the item would be one of devotion and salutation. The language of hastas or hand gestures of Bharata Natyam are used tell stories and support expression of emotions. Ornaments and weapons held by the gods are shown through use of hastas. Arala or pataka are used to show his large waving ears. Amukulam in the left hand is used to depict the long trunk. Abhaya hastam to bless, padmakosha to show a fruit or modakam and two kapitha hasta held low on either side of the body indicating the pot belly.
An invocation to Ganesha is usually sung at the commencement of a concert or performance. Therefore the ragas suitable are Natai, Arabhi, Hamsadhwani, or Saurashtram. Of course, there are hundreds of music compositions on Ganesha in various other ragas. Some of the epithets most commonly used are: Giriraja Suta (son of Giriraja or Shiva), Gamganapate Gananatha, Ganadhipate, Gana Nayaka (leader of the ganas), Gajavadana, Gajamukhana, Kari vadana (Elephant-faced) Gajaraja (Elephant-King) and Siddhi Vinayaka.. Eka dantaa (single tusk), Mooladhara Murti, Pranamamyaham, Pranavakkaram, (Symbolizing AUM), Vighnaraja (Remover of Obstacles) are also commonly used by composers. In a varnam in Todi, Swati Thirunal begins the pallavi with ‘Dani samajendra gamini’ meaning ‘one with a graceful gait of an elephant!’
For the dancer, anecdotes that can be elaborated dramatically are of crucial importance. Well-known stories about Ganesha are depicted dramatically in dance. Parvati created Ganesha from her own body. A brave and strong child, he was asked to guard Parvati’s door while she bathed. Shiva returned home after a long absence and was not aware that Ganesha was his son. Shiva demanded that he be allowed to see his wife, but Ganesha refused entry. Father and son fought fiercely. Before Parvati could intervene, the furious Shiva had beheaded him. Parvati was distraught and pleaded with Shiva to restore him to life. Shiva repented his hasty action, and told her that he can be brought back to life but only with a different head. The first animal sighted was an elephant. So the elephant’s head was placed on the dead boy’s neck and the boy came back to life. Shiva rewarded his son’s bravery and made him the leader of the ganas, his army. He also ruled that all deities and mortals should invoke Ganesha and worship him before commencing a project and on all auspicious occasions. Ganesha and his brother Kartikeya once had a dispute. In some versions the dispute was about who was the elder son. The commonly accepted story is that Narada had in his possession a fruit which would bestow wisdom to one who partook of it. Both Ganesha and Kartikeya wanted it. Their parents Shiva and Parvati decided that the fruit will be the prize given to the one who can circle the Universe first. While Kartikeya took off on his peacock, Ganesha circumbulated his father Shiva and mother Parvati , and saluted them saying, “You, my divine parents, are the Universe.” He was rewarded with the fruit of wisdom and declared the winner. This angered Kartikeya who left his parents and took to the hills. Ganesha broke his tusk and used it as a pen to write the Mahabharata as Vyasa dictated to him. Ganesha the drum player, Ganesha the dancer, Ganesha the remover of obstacles and Ganesha the lover of sweets are also popular with dancers. In South India, Ganesha is regarded as a celibate and therefore does not feature in love poems. In north Indian traditions Vinayaka has two wives Budhi, symbolic of intellect and Siddhi, and the second, achievement. Kartikeya, on the other hand is well-known for his exploits with Valli and Devyani. There are popular padams in Tamil which recount how Kartikeya or Murugan once summoned his brother Ganesha, to frighten Valli into submission by appearing before her as a wild elephant. The North Indian Ganapati is painted vermilion, while in the south he appears to be grey, the colour of sacred ash or vibhuti.
From my experience as a dancer who enjoys composing dance and studying fresh compositions, I believe that it is the dancer who brings to life the beauty of a song. A dancer selects a song from a cross section of hundreds of composers and ragas, several languages and deities. There are many reasons why a dancer selects a particular song. The song probably inspired her when she first heard it. Maybe it is childhood favourite hummed by her mother. Some songs pose a challenge and dancers love challenges. Perhaps the rhythmic structure is exciting. Or is it that the achingly beautiful padam touches a chord in her heart as it reflects the sorrow of her life? It is the abstract, the philosophical, mathematical or emotional illusions portrayed in the lyrics which draw attention. Today thematic presentations depicting social problems, current events, or feminist issues are popular. Dramatic life stories of composers like Jayadeva, Tyagaraja or Swati Thirunal attract dancers like bees to the flowers. One can drink deep and long from their compositions and never be satiated. And every dancer worth her art would surely have composed at least one on the beloved Ganesha.
Once the song is selected, ideally one must study the composer’s style, his life, the general canvas of his works and understand his philosophy of life. Reference points to the context of the lyrics should be noted. Many of Tyagaraja’s kritis are autobiographical. They are a direct reference to events in his life. His saintly life, his single-minded dedication to Rama, his austerity and dignity must be kept in mind.
The dancer first learns the song, understands its rhythmic pattern, studies the meaning of every word and its connotation, and visualises the scope for anecdotal elaboration. The underlying mood or sthayi bhava is an important element. After serious research into all these aspects, the dancer commences to compose.
Tyagaraja’s kritis have always fascinated me for the tremendous range and emotional content. In 1971 when I first researched the saint’s compositions, I knew that I had struck a gold mine. Here was a treasury of kritis each brimming with navarasas, and with a story to tell. The first kriti I ever undertook to compose was one of only two kritis Tyagaraja composed on Ganesha. Sri ganapatini in Raga Saurashtram was the traditional salutation composed as a curtain –raiser for ‘Prahlada Bhakti Vijayam’, a bhagavata mela natakam by Tyagaraja.*2 This is preceded by dwipadas or couplets which describe the various aspects of Ganapati.
Kariraja vadanundu karpuranibhudu
Girisuta sutudu sangita lolundu
One who is elephant-faced, whose body is white like camphor
Son of the daughter of the mountains (Parvati), connoisseur of music
Ambuja sammavdhya marulu koluva
Jambu phalambula savijoochukonchu
Worshipped by Brahma (one who sits on the Lotus)
One who enjoys the fruits of jambu (and other) tree
*2 Tyagaraja belonged to the bhagavata mela tradition. He composed another musical dance-drama called ‘Nowka Charitram’ on child Krishna’s boat trip with gopis.
Dharmadi phalamula dayastunanuchu
Nirmala hridayudai nirvikarundu
One who rewards the one who follows Dharma
One who resides in the heart of a pure devotee
Sokkuchu soluchu soga suga vedale
Mrokki sevinthumu mudamunarare
He captures our hearts as He comes
Let us all welcome Him with prayers
Every line is a word picture and even as we sing them we can visualize the image of Ganesha whose arrival is awaited by the eager devotees.
Pallavi: Sri ganapatini sevimpare, shritha manavulara
O devotees of pure hearts, worship Sri Ganapati!
Now, very simply, we can analyse each word and see how it is depicted in Bharatanatyam. In a music concert the singer repeats the line several times changing the emphasis on each syllable and introducing new musical phrases. These are called sangatis. Similarly, the dancer uses sanchari bhava to elaborate ideas. The word Sri Ganapati is performed with varying poses each time. For instance:
a)One who wears a snake as a sacred thread, (b)One with large ears and long trunk.(c)One who dances.(d) One who holds a lotus, a rosary, a gada. (e) One who broke his tusk to write the Mahabharata. (f)One who circled his parents Shiva and Parvati and bowed to them saying, ‘you are the Universe’ Now, give me the prize, the fruit !
The last idea is called sanchari, an elaboration of an idea. The story of his birth would be too detailed and may upset the balance of a short invocatory piece.
Anupallavi: Vagadhipaadhi supujajala chekoni
He (Ganesha) has just now received Brahma’s worship
Baaga natim puchu vedalina.
Now he comes here dancing gloriously
Brahma can be depicted in many ways. Four-faced One, creator of Vedas, Saraswati’s consort, born from the navel of Vishnu, or One who sits on the lotus, etc. Since Brahma is mentioned in passing, and is not a part of the scene here, we will choose the first two epithets which are direct and simple. Brahma can be shown worshipping with flowers, circumbulating and bowing to Ganesha. It is in the next line that one can elaborate on words like baga natim puchu and vedalina. How does he enter? How does he dance? Imagine a long procession with drummers, nadaswaram players, girls spreading a carpet of flowers, and devotees waving large sacred whisks! And then behold! Ganesha Himself comes dancing with many rhythms swaying His trunk, ears flapping, His large body moving gracefully. The picture is complete when the devotees are shown enraptured by this vision.
panasa narikeladi –jambu- phalammula araginchi
He has accepted offerings of jack-fruit,coconut,and fruits like the jambu
Ghanatarmbuganu mahipai padamulu ghallughallana nunchi
The earth resounds with the sound of (Ghall ghall )of his heavy footsteps
Anayamu haricharanayuga mulanu Hridyambujamuna nunchi
One in whose heart nestles the sacred feet of Hari
Vinayamunanu tyagaraja vinuthudu
With great humility Tyagaraja praises Him
Vividhagatula dhalangumani vedalina
He who comes dancing to varying rhythms
In the Devagandhari kriti ‘Kshirasagara shayana’, Tyagaraja pleads with Rama to free him from his worries as swiftly as He came to the rescue of Gajendra. This kriti is very popular with dancers as there is an allusion to the well-known story of the King of elephants whose leg was caught by a crocodile while drinking water in a river. Gajendra sent up a poignant prayer to Vishnu who came to protect his dear devotee. The crocodile is in reality an accursed soul. He too gets released at the hand of Vishnu. This indeed is the first Gajendra Moksham!
The Ganesa Kauvuthvam is part of an ancient temple ritual sung usually at the onset of festivals. The Tamil composition has rhythmic syllables interspersed with lyrics that are recited and also set to ragas. A brief excerpt:
Aru thiru marugane vighna vinayaka
Vinakitta aruliya ganapati jaya jaya thikkitta udarakadan jaya jaya
Thikkita udarakadan kinnam tadhikathudikkai yaanai mugathavar
Tongita kita taka thongutakka devargal ganapati
Tikkta kitathaka thikkitonga ganapati kauthvam
Katrravar vinaiyara ukkkudutham … …..
The elephant is an important animal in Indian mythology. It is sacred to Hindus and Buddhists. The origin, content and imagery of our classical dances are traditionally based on our scriptures and epics. In Buddhists lore, Siddhartha’s mother Maya dreamed of a white elephant just before giving birth to her son. Indra’s vehicle is a white elephant, Airavat. Dance is a divine skill which most gods and goddesses are naturally gifted with. Nataraja is the inimitable dancer and dance acquires its divinity by virtue of being associated with Him. Although he is known as Pasupati, Protector of animals, Shiva ismerciless with asuras who challenge him in the guise of an animal. Mahishasura mardini is one of the items perfomed regularly and religiously by women dancers to portray the power of women. Durga empowered by the gods, takes on a ferocious Mahishasura, the asura in a buffalo form. The demon also transformed itself during the fight into an elephant, Gajasura. One of the popular anecdotes depicted in dance is the Daksha Yagna. Shiva rushes to the yagna after hearing that Sati has immolated herself. Unable to face his fury, the sages create asuras who fight Shiva. Among them is an elephant, whose hide is ripped open by Shiva and worn as an upper garment. The earth trembled and shook as Shiva danced his Tandava after destroying the pride and arrogance of Daksha. Kathakali, the magnificent dance of Kerala, has a poignant anecdote in its repertoire that describes a tussle between an elephant, lion and a crocodile witnessed by Bhima in a forest. The elephant loses to the other two cruel animals. It is not part of any text, but gives the artiste scope to present his dramatic skill.
The time has come for us to face the fact that we are leaving for the future generations a derelict and sparse earth .The flora and fauna which is the balancing factor of Mother Nature is being depleted at an alarming pace. The panda, tiger and the elephant are in danger of extinction. The elephant in Asia and Africa are hunted for their ivory, confined to sanctuaries, or are used for heavy labour. They suffer from lack of care and cruelty at the hands of their owners. As the forests are being axed down, the elephants forage and destroy cultivated crops.
Elephants are killed and elephants kill men. Man and elephant are in conflict everywhere. We must commence an awareness drive for conservation of natural resources, on a war footing. Will the elephant be perpetuated only in dance, literature and art? Will our great grand –children see only skeletons of the elephant in museums? Then we will be back where we began. Like the cave –men who drew elephant sketches and drawings on the walls of their caves.
(This article was written a few years ago for a project that never materialised . I posted it in my blog in Sulekha.com for music and dance lovers )